Design Your Leadership to Live Beyond You

These notes formed the basis for a chapter on leadership styles from my previous book, Design Leadership: How Top Design Leaders Build and Grow Successful Organizations published by O’Reilly Books in January 2016.


Leading with the End in Mind, Even When it Doesn’t Include You

“Patient.” Says Steven Fitzgerald from Habanero Consulting Group based in Vancouver when asked about his leadership style. “I’ve realized over time that I’m very oriented around thinking about things in the long term. We didn’t want to create a lifestyle organization.” In an era where companies are thinking about multiple bottom lines and how they can “make a dent in the Universe” it’s apparent that design leadership also needs a bigger goal than just a paycheck or an award. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not trying to portray lifestyle businesses as a negative thing but we feel that there’s a change to be made in the world that Habanero can play an important role in. It’s not going to happen in 10 or 20 years. It’s going to happen in the longer term. Unfortunately, I won’t be suitable for this role for that period of time.”

“There’s going to be a lot of turnover and change and evolution and growth. We need to build an organization that will last a really long time.”

Fitzgerald’s attitude is common amongst successful service design leaders. Unlike product companies that have a clear path to an exit, service companies tend to be in it for the long term. Acquisitions and IPO’s are a rare outcome for service businesses. This gives their leadership fewer options and counterintuitively more focus on strategies to deliver long term value to their clients. “There’s going to be a lot of turnover and change and evolution and growth. We need to build an organization that will last a really long time.” Says Fitzgerald, “We put a lot of thought into organizational sustainability. I always think about you’re building an edifice for people to come and practice in your culture and share your ideas.”

He uses the metaphor to make his point. Fitzgerald imagines he’s creating a building with really thick walls with a high point that reached up to the sky. “It would be a beautiful place for people to come and share ideas. We’re trying to build this organization in that way, not with any religious context but to make really thick, deep foundations, which is why we invest so heavily in things like hiring and things like that and culture and understanding our culture. We’re much more concerned about how things are unfolding in the long term and where we have to go. We have this sense of purpose and change we want to create in the world. We know it’s going to take a long time. I think that requires a lot of patience.”

Thinking long term is hard. Especially for young leaders that may be reacting to peer pressure to get big fast. “The older we get, the more patience we learn, and I think it’s done me personally a world of good.” Karim Marucchi of Crowd Favorite. “The younger you are, the more you want to go out there and attack, and get that client, and get that project out there.” Marucchi has had the benefit of working in several organizations, both big and small, and knows the value of patience. “You learn when you can say no, and when you can pass up a certain opportunity because you can find another one. You just learn how to deal with different points of stress better.” Marucchi has learned this lesson the hard way. Having personally stewarded 43 mergers and acquisitions in the agency space he’s well aware that patience is key to success. “In my career, I’ve made deals that were made purely for the immediate bottom line and there were deals that were made with the long-term value in mind. I prefer the latter.”

Uniquely The Same

No two design leaders we interviewed were the same. Their backgrounds, experiences, skills, genders, and cultural diversities made finding commonalities in styles difficult. In spite of this they all seemed to be striving for a singular common outcome — make their teams successful. “I think for me, my management style, it’s always in flux.” Says Alvarez, of Uncorked Studios “To be honest, I’m learning from the size changes that we’ve gone through. I’ve changed my one-on-one policy. I would do one-on-ones with my direct reports what for me felt like it was often enough, every four weeks, maybe five, maybe six. And now I’m doing weekly one-on-ones. I’ve been doing that for about a month and that was a big change. I was talking to another CEO friend of mine here in town. He told me ‘We do all the one-on-ones. We just schedule it all the same day.’ Whereas before I was scheduling my one-on-ones over a rolling six or seven day period. Now I do 25 minute one-on-ones Thursdays, every Thursday and they just go. From a schedule perspective it feels like I’m giving up an entire day every week but that’s not what actually it feels like on the other side of doing these meetings. If you’re having eight conversations, all on the same day, you’re aware of incidents and can respond to things real time.” Having such close contact with his team gives Alvarez the opportunity to help his team in immediate terms. Not having to wait for annual check-ins or reviews gives his team the opportunity to learn, teach and grow in ways that other organizations can only dream of.

For design leaders like Dan Mall at SuperFriendly in Philadelphia their leadership style fits into the operational model they have created. SuperFriendly uses the Hollywood model of team management to pull together ad hoc design teams for specific projects. Delivering on great work when you have a new team every project requires nerves of steel. So it seems appropriate that collecting talent for a time-boxed outcome is the job of a Director. “For the projects that I pull together, I’m the Director.” Says Mall of his role and leadership style, “I think that this [Hollywood] model scales really well in that I can create as many teams as I want to. The reason that I don’t have 100 teams running at once is that when I stretch myself too thin, it affects my directing ability. So I try to limit the amount of projects that I’m working on to only the things that I can be directly involved in. That way I can keep my focus on those projects. Knowing that the common thread in all SuperFriendly projects is me, I need to uphold that quality of all of those projects. If I can’t deliver that then I’m not really going to have good portfolio at work. I’m not going to be able to sell that work. So since I have to be that thread, I try to hold that thing to be as consistent as possible.”

“I’m not shy in making those things known, but I try to leave as much openness for the person that I’m hiring to bring their thing to the table, or their skill to the table.”

Directing projects requires both tactical and strategic leadership. Being clear about the outcomes of the project can’t be achieved by being holding your tongue. “I’m pretty direct on the stuff that I like to do and the visions that I have for projects.” Says Mall, “I’m not shy in making those things known, but I try to leave as much openness for the person that I’m hiring to bring their thing to the table, or their skill to the table. I find my job as more of a curator as just, how can find the people that are doing the best work? And how can I create enough space for them to do that work uninhibited? So some people want to be involved in the business side, some people just want to come into Photoshop and for both of those people my work is to help them do their jobs more effectively.” Whether you choose to see yourself as the Director on the set of a movie, like Mall, or the spiritual leader of your team, like LeVecchia, it’s essential to communicate exactly what you want from your team. Clear communication from the leader whilst encouraging clear communication in return is an obvious but rare skill amongst leaders.

Leaders Draw The Best From Others

If there’s one thread in the leadership style conversation it’s that helping others be better at their jobs is the primary concern of all our leaders. Giving their teams the mental and emotional tools to deal with tough situations and hard challenges is part of that territory. There’s no room for walking on eggshells in these situations. Leaders are expected to have a clear message for the team. What might not be that obvious is that helping others find their voice is as important as having a voice.

“There’s an element of radical honesty and I don’t mean that in the context of giving people feedback.” Says Libby Delana of Mechanica, “What I mean by that is to look at what are considered norms and putting those things through the filter of honesty. We ask ‘Do you have to continue to hold this as the way we should always do things?’ So it’s I guess it’s less about, ‘Here’s what we know to be true,’ and rather being radical honest and asking, ‘But do we have to believe that it’s true? And can we challenge those?’” When Delana reflects on how the people in her organization might describe her leadership style she comes up with “I think probably the language they would use would be optimistic, and empathetic.” She pauses for a long time, and unwittingly reinforces her thoughtfulness, “I think. It’s an interesting question.”

“Not all ideas come from a single source. I’m good at collecting ideas, listen to all sources and see what works.”

The ability to find the best in others means pushing them out of their familiar thinking. To move others to a new way of thinking is a cornerstone of making other more successful. Pulling them out from their comfort zones is the job of the design leader. “It’s collaborative.” Says John Torres, Digital Design Director at America’s Test Kitchen, “Not all ideas come from a single source. I’m good at collecting ideas, listen to all sources and see what works.” Torres who oversees a vast array of digital design properties and assets at the country’s most respected test kitchen realizes that collaboration isn’t about telling other what to do, “It has to be done in an understanding and respectful way. Respect for the team’s ideas. I try not to dismiss any ideas and remind myself that I’m not too good for anything.”

Death by Micromanagement

Easygoing” Says Sarah Tesla from Make in Vancouver, which when contrasted with her intense eye contact and cross country motorbike stories hardly seems possible. Tesla who leads a digital design studio of 13 designers and developers, “I am not a micromanager at all. I really give people the space that they need to figure out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And, yeah, I sort of feel like everyone on my team is a bit of a counselor to me, in that sense.” Tesla allows the team to deliver on the details while she takes ownership of the big picture. “I keep the 10,000 feet view to give me perspective for myself. It helps me know when to step in and provide support if something’s going off the rails a bit, or if I just generally see someone who still needs a little bit of work to try and get to maybe a point of confidence that they’re lacking, or a skill that they’re still developing. If I have something to offer there, then I’ll step in and support however I can.”

Tesla is sensitive not to swoop in too often and come off as a micromanager. She tells the story of her creative director, whose previous roles were micromanaged. “He’d come in, he’d sit down, present an idea, and then it would be picked apart by his old boss. He always felt like he had that backseat driver. Over the shoulder type of management. He’s mentioned to me that it’s refreshing to be in an environment where that doesn’t happen. Where it feels more like a mutually respectful conversation about the outcome we’re trying to reach. If you have something valuable to offer, great, but you’re not going to just shit on my idea before we’ve had a chance to figure it out.” Tesla concludes with an insight that is true of all design businesses.”If you start a business and you’re one person, you kind of build around you the things that relate to your personality.” Personal styles influence leadership styles in so many ways. Successful leaders know which of their personal styles to nurture and which need to be changed.

“I want my team to know that I am willing to do anything that they are doing. I am not above anything. I’m not above any task.”

One might argue that the best way to present lead others to their success is to be the role model for that success. “Lead by example.” Warren Wilansky, founder of Plank in Montreal “That’s first and foremost way I see it. In other words, I want my team to know that I am willing to do anything that they are doing. I am not above anything. I’m not above any task. I want them to feel that I’m with them and I’m just as willing to do it. And I think by doing that people understand that leadership for me means not being separate from the team.” Wilansky goes on to explain that Plank has always been a really flat organization and that his CEO role might be considered a leader by default. “I happened to be there first. I have to be the one that’s the leader but it doesn’t mean that I’m above or beyond doing wherever anybody else is doing on our team.”

Empowering to be Powerful

Leadership styles might be complex and varied but underneath it all they all strive for the same outcome; getting the best out of the people you lead. Guiding people to being their best self is the role of the design leader. How they get there is almost always a deeply personal journey. “Sometimes it’s different for us girls.” Says Clockwork CEO Nancy Lyons, “We’ve had to embrace the word ‘bossy’ in the most positive of ways. The truth is uncomfortable but I love telling the truth. I’ve never really thought about myself in terms of leadership but because I tell the truth there’s leadership in that. I was working in a company that recognized me as the person that most wanted to follow. I wanted to contribute to a place that I wanted to work. I’d had too many experiences working in places that weren’t thoughtful. Ultimately that means being empowering”.

Lyons nails the overall lesson here. Your leadership style will be a complex collection of personal characteristics and experiences. There isn’t going to be an ideal leadership style because each business is different. “I really believe in the team and my job is to be empowering and inspirational. I think my team would align with the empowering and inspirational sentiment.” Apparently Lyons’ advice isn’t just lip service, she’s walking the walk too. “I recently got a post-it note on my desk that said ‘you inspire me to be a better person’”.

Key Takeaways

  • Create an environment where failures can lead to personal and professional growth.
  • Being a teacher style leader to your team can be a good way to become a student.
  • Lead by example. Get your hands dirty but don’t forget to also delegate.
  • Nobody wants a micromanager. Find ways to return authority and grant trust.
  • 1-on-1 meetings are something you shouldn’t delegate. The feedback is too valuable.
  • Regardless of your style, ultimately it needs to motivate and empower your team.
  • Being a good communicator also means encouraging good communication.
  • Leadership means being considered as a part of the team and still being able to maintain your status as the leader.

Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s another entire book full of this stuff. I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Partly out of curiosity and on the back of our own experience, we’ve interviewed almost one hundred product leaders. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.

You can follow us at @rmbanfield, @bfgmartin, and @nwalkingshaw.

The Product Leadership book was published by O’Reilly is available on Amazon.